Cities & Architecture

‘Manchester Is the Place’ and Six Other Reminders of What Verse Can Do For an Embattled City

A collection of poems written about cities under attack, about loss, hope and resilience.

Women pay their respects following a vigil in central Manchester. Credit: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Women pay their respects following a vigil in central Manchester. Credit: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Tony Walsh on Manchester

On May 22, a terrorist set off a bomb at Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England. The attack left 22 dead, including an eight-year-old girl. Poet Tony Walsh responded with a tribute to the city – on everything that made it special and would keep it going.

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Pablo Neruda on Stalingrad

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to the city after the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany’s attempt to capture Stalingrad, now in southern Russia, in February 1943. More than a million died in the battle or went missing during the time that many see as the biggest and most brutal conflict during the Second World War.

Translated excerpt:

And you, Russia, you stern warrior
Not experienced the same whether you are now:
And loneliness and cold lying,
Rancor vows … Plagued your chest
Zillion bullets, tens of thousands of cores.
Already scorpion crawled fascist
For your walls, great Stalingrad
In an effort to sting you! .. Where are they,
Your allies in a giant battle?
New York dancing .. and London immersed
In a treacherous thought … Oh shame! –
I shouted to them. – My heart can not,
Can not our heart, no, it can
In the world to live, that looks so calm
On the death of his best sons!
Can it be you leave them in the fight?
Think again! Perish yourself!
We are waiting for! .. What you say something?
Or have you, that on the eastern front
Mountain rose corpses filling
All of your sky? But then a legacy
Will get you the hell! .. Or you want to
Drive to the grave life? .. Erase the smile
With faces stinking mud, blood
Cruel torment? We say, “Enough!
We are tired of your petty affairs,
We are tired of your meetings autumn,
Where ever preside umbrella
Though sleeping in the coffin sinister Chamberlain! ”
Second Front is not! .. But Stalingrad
You can stand at least a day and night
You tortured with fire and iron!
Yes! Death itself is powerless in front of you!
They are immortal, your sons …

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Premendra Mitra on Calcutta in the Bengal famine

In 1943 Bengal, nearly four million people died of a famine created by the British colonial government’s policies of making farmers move from food crop to cash crops, and diverting food imports to British troops fighting in the Second World War in a world where trade had dropped substantially. Premendra Mitra poem Phyan (meaning rice gruel) brings out the image of men, women and children on the streets of Calcutta crying out for phyan during the famine.

On the city streets
Roam strange creatures,
Human-like, yet, not quite human,
Cruel caricatures of humanity!
Yet they move and speak,
Like debris they pile up by the road,
Sit, foraging food, on piles of garbage
Weary

And cry out for phyan.

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Sankichi Toge on Hiroshima

On August 6, 1945, at the height of the Second World War, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The explosion killed 80,000 people immediately, and tens of thousand died painful deaths in the years that followed from being exposed to the radiation. In this poem, translated by Karen Thornber, Sankichi Toge writes about memories that will never fade. An excerpt:

can we forget that flash?
suddenly 30,000 in the streets disappeared
in the crushed depths of darkness
the shrieks of 50,000 died out

when the swirling yellow smoke thinned
buildings split, bridges collapsed
packed trains rested singed
and a shoreless accumulation of rubble and embers – Hiroshima
before long, a line of naked bodies walking in groups, crying
with skin hanging down like rags
hands on chests
stamping on crumbled brain matter
burnt clothing covering hips

corpses lie on the parade ground like stone images of Jizo, dispersed in all
                 directions
on the banks of the river, lying one on top of another, a group that had crawled to
                 a tethered raft

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Sinan Antoon on Baghdad

In his work, Sinan Antoon looks at an Iraq caught between wars, at cities that build themselves up only to be torn down again. An excerpt from Wrinkles: on the wind’s forehead

3
the wind was tired
from carrying the coffins
and leaned
against a palm tree
A satellite inquired:
Where to now?
the silence
in the wind’s cane murmured:
“Baghdad”
and the palm tree caught fire


6
My heart is a stork
perched on a distant dome
in Baghdad
it’s nest made of bones
its sky
of death

7
This is not the first time
myths wash their face
with our blood
(t)here they are
looking in horizon’s mirror
as they don our bones

11
The grave is a mirror
into which the child looks
and dreams:
when will I grow up
and be like my father
. . .
dead

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Zeb and Haniya on Lahore

On Easter Sunday in 2016, a bomber in Lahore killed 72 people outside a park, including many children. Musical duo Zeb and Haniya released a song, ‘Dadra’, as a reaction to the attack, talking about a city that is resilient “even in the darkest of times”. The song and the music video explore Lahore’s past, present and future.

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Mahmoud Darwish on Jerusalem

As a city, Jerusalem knows conflict more than most. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote extensively on Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians,talks in his poem In Jerusalem about the conflicting narratives, both historical and religious, that shaped the city’s past and present. An excerpt, translated by Fady Joudah:

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”
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Postscript: Although the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in Spain in April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War led to a lot of poetry, the city’s destruction was most iconically memorialised not in words but on canvas, by Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica. Credit: pablopicasso.org

The painting, which Picasso finished in June 1937, now hangs in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.